Back to Back Issues Page
August 12, 2008








The figure is included in this book for the benefit of those readers who have studied in life classes and who have had some basic training in figure drawing and anatomy.

However, those who lack the required experience may find in this section of the book enough stimulation to arouse an interest in drawing the figure.

As with every picture, we start with composition and placement of the subject.

What will be the most interesting pose, the most striking.  Should we use a full-figure or a half figure.  Should the figure be standing or reclining.  Would a front, side, rear, or a three-quarters view be most effective.

If you are working from a model, you are now faced with the active problem of creating your composition, background, lighting, arrangement of accessory objects, etc.

In landscape painting, nature conveniently provides all of the props, which you can paint as is or re-arrange.

But in painting the figure, the entire arrangement and structure of the picture is up to you.  You are completely on  your own.

As you can see in the drawings shown.  I arrived at the composition after making several thumbnail sketches.

I felt that the final arrangement was a provocative pose and that night light would add to the atmosphere or mood.

In sketch1.  


I started with the triangular motif for proportionate division of space and for strong design.  As is commonly known, the triangle is the most powerful of all abstract forms.

Sketches 2 and 3


as well as the small figure action sketches are possible alternates to the first pose.

Sketch 4,


shows the results of a process of elimination.  Here the composition has been simplified to accent the figure.

When I decided on the final pose, I very carefully drew the figure, accentuating the rhythm of the torso and the arms, with the legs remaining fixed.

The background was drawn in last, with the same careful attention to detail.




In painting any watercolor, I paint from light to dark.

I work this way in painting a figure because it is difficult to recapture the light areas once the dark tones have been painted.  Since I do not recommend the use of opaque white pigment, all white area must be carefully planned.

When starting to paint, lay in the large areas first - such as background, floor, screen.

Before finishing these area, start painting the figure in light tones.  However, the background must be dry before this is done.

When the paint on the figure is semi-dry, paint in the large shadow area in middle tones, carefully following the construction of the figure.

Then add the darker tones in the spine, right side of back, and buttocks.

After the figure is completely painted, soften the edges on the light side with a one-quarter inch oil bristly brush.  When complete, do the background.

After the background has been painted, take a final wash of Ultramarine Blue, Cadmium Orange, and Cadmium Red and wash over the entire background to soften any hard edges.

The same thing can be done over the figure in warm colors if the edges appear hard.  The colors used in the figure are: Indian Red, Cadmium Red, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Sepia, Hooker's Green, and Black.

In my painting of the figure, here is the actual sequence of color application.  I FIRST, laid on a very light wash of Yellow Ochre.  While this was still wet, I used Hooker's Green, Indian Red, and Sepia in the shadow area; in the buttock area I added a touch of Alizarin Crimson to these colors.

After this application and while the picture was damp rather than wet, I deepened the values, using the same mixture of colors.

Then, after the picture was dry, I accentuated the spine by using my bristle brush to lighten the area indicated.

Colors in the hair are Black, Ulrramarine Blueo, Mauve, and a touch of Burnt Sienna.

In the feet I used the same mixture as in the figure only I used slightly more Alizarin Crimson.

The figure as painted on a 300 pound rough rag paper.



The following figures are called Incidental Figures and therefore, are not painted with as much detail as the previous figures.




How to Paint Figures in Watercolor successfully will depend on you studying your mistakes.

If you start worrying about what type of figure to paint, what their arms, legs, are doing, what action will be involved it can be very frustrating so lets take ANOTHER APPROACH.

Simply make a few marks and let the marks "suggest" what the figure is doing.

Don't say "this figure is doing such and such.

Say this

This shape "makes me think" of a figure doing  -  this or that.

The basic difference is your attitude, your wording of the phrases, will make the painting of figures much more fun.   When I'm in class, this is where the giggles start.

Creating fun figures the easy way

Practice How To Paint Figurees in Watercolor before you paint on your actual Watercolor Painting.

Drag the brush downward making this mark in one stroke.

    Here is another top of two torso's

Gravity comes into play you must put the legs under the body to support it, if the body goes to the left make sure the legs are there to support it and it won't topple over.
Paint legs or skirt now,still painted with the side of the brush.

Now we have added arms and legs and the head, keep this in mind we are painting adults, the head 1/7th of the total height.

Study the marks you made and sometimes they will be coming or going away from you and paint accordingly.

So basically we are finished, we have made a mark for the upper torso, made a mark for the lower body parts, legs pants or skirt then decided whether they are going or coming, then put the head on. How To Paint Figures in Watercolor is fun.

Here is a full figure.

More ideas on figures to come.



Watercolor Acetate is a product that allows you to paint on the surface without beading up (specially treated acetate).
It actually allows you to paint on the surface, place it on the painting and lets you see what it will look like in the finished result without touching the painting.

Suppose you decide to paint a figure on an existing painting, Using Acetate Figures is the way to go and you can move the sheet of acetate on the painting to select the spot for the figure.

Once the decision is made for the best spot you can paint the figure right into the scene using the acetate version as a guide.  It is easy placing a dark figure over a light background.

But light figures over a dark background are just a wee bit harder.
This is the way I do it.....  I take a tissue roughly torn and crumpled in the approximate shape of the figure or figures and place it under the acetate where I have decided to have the figures placed.

You are now going to paint on the acetate, painting the background colors around the figures,the end result will be a white figure (that is the torn and crumpled tissue)  In other words you have painted a negative shape around the positive shape that is the (figure).  Now remove the tissue from under the acetate.

Now lets see what you have!  You have the background painted around a figure, we are still on the acetate.  By observation you can see the area on the painting that has to be removed, when this is completed, dry it, now paint the background around the figure and you have a completed the project.

Now you can see it might not be a bad idea to anticipate where the figures are going and leave ghost like areas, no hard edges.

These ghosts can be easily modified into a figure by reshaping the background a bit and adding convincing details.

Warning:  Dont use masking fluid for the figures, it totally restricts the shape and the hard line may be difficult to overcome when reshaping the background,Using Acetate in Figures is the way to go.
It's a little easier for me to place the figure into the ghost shape and match the background up to the figure.

Here are some further ideas about Semi Photorealistic figures in Painting People in Watercolor.


These people or figures will be a little more defined than the last section which was Incidental Figures.

The above two charming ladies are Semi Photorealistic Figures.

In Incidental Figures we just "put down" a mark with the brush not thinking this figure will be doing this or that.  Then with the same thought the lower body mark was "put down".

Only then did you ask yourself what is this figure doing, are they coming or going, sometimes I personally feel that way, how about you?

Now in this section a little more planning is going to take place.

That being said this is not about how to paint tight photorealistic portraits in watercolor.  But this is about painting people that focus on fresh impressionistic way of depicting a Semi Photorealistic figure.

Consequently an intensive study of human anatomy will NOT be presented here in Semi Photorealistic Figures.

Just some Basic Figure Proportions.


Adult Figures.....Semi Photorealistic Figure.

Lets use the head as our "measuring stick" so to speak.  Compare the size of the head to all other parts of the body.

Just having fun

The average height of an Adult is between 7 and 8 heads top to bottom.  

The crotch is generally falls half way between head to toe.
Sholders, on a male - three heads wide.
Sholders on the fair sex  - two heads wide.
Arm hanging straight down the tips of the fingers will be just over half the body height.

Children.....Semi Photorealistic Figure.

Age four years about five heads high, legs about two heads.
Age eight  about six heads height, legs two and one half heads.
From the age of six onward the mid point of their height is important.  This mid point is almost at the hip line.  This will help you to draw the figure if you know where the mid point should be. This keeps you from getting the torso too long and the legs too short, a very common error. Now you will not do that, will you.

All this proportion stuff is making my head spin, lets move on.

From a composition stand point,Semi Photorealistic Figures in Watercolor, can spice up a lack luster area in the painting or generate focal area.

You better pay attention to what he is saying.

Of course as the Semi Photorealistic Figure moves into the foreground getting closer to the viewer, you will need to add more details.
You may need to use more strokes of color to show the light side and shadow side of each body, and to show hair, face and clothing.


The structure of a painting should attract the eye to its center of interest.  If it does this, the painting begins, at least, to be a good composition.

The number of missing ingredient in most paintings is a strong impact area (center of interest).  It's either too weak or worse non-existent, or too large.

The impact area should be about 1/16" of the total painting.  So a full sheet 22" x 30" area will be about 42 square inches (6"x7"),  half sheet area about 4"x5".


Divide paper into thirds vertical and horizontal, where lines intersect you will have four choices, choose one.  This is where the brightest colors, contrasting values, crisper edges and fine detail should go.

Dots. choose one dot for impact area, some books call this "center of interest", but it is really an area.

In the "S" drawing you will see the largest house in impact area.


Drawing "X" children in impact area.  But the center of interest must be supported by other elements in the painting.

In the case of the drawings on the facing page, the preliminary sketch, named Gaspe, has as its center of interest the little group of houses in the lower foreground.  Supporting elements include the smaller houses on the beach beyond, the headland in the background, and the water itself.

You have undoubtedly seen carelessly composed pictures which have so many conflicting elements, so many distracting side-issues, that a focal point has been completely lost.  Supporting elements must never detract from the central theme.

Study of a random group of snapshots will probably show you just how important side-issues and their proper placement can be.  The person who snaps his camera to record a beach party, for example, is not usually concerned with anything but the person or persons whose picture he is "taking."

The center of interest is so important that supporting elements are completely forgotten.

It is not the purpose of this book to delve deeply into the subject of composition.  The aspiring student of watercolor must, as he progresses, gradually become aware of such essentials as proportion, rhythm,unity, balance, contract,etc.

It is important, however, that the artist, before he starts a picture, be completely sold on the importance of its subject matter.  If he lacks this enthusiasm, his interest will flag, and the final result will be one of hopeless mediocrity.  Therefore, pick a subject that you are strongly drawn to and start by thinking about it in terms of pattern so that you areas will be well and interestingly divided.

Next, decide on your eye level; this horizontal determines the horizon line in your painting

Having decided what to paint, you must next decide what interest you most, foreground or background.

The next step is to view your subject in abstract terms, breaking down the component parts of your design and placing the elements in their proper relation to each other.

The next step is a prerequisite to all painting - a good drawing.  If you cannot draw, your case is not hopeless.  You will find, too that your watercolors improve as your ability to draw increases.

The accompanying sketches are included to help you see the movement of a composition.  Using the letter "S" as a basic form, I produced a coastal sketch.  In the letter "X" I have presented a city scene.  Try this exercise yourself and see how many pictures you can develop from the use of different letters.




I don't bother, I just copy what somebody else painted and people call me a good Artist. This is what I hear from my students all the time.

Whether you are going to paint in Abstract, Realistic or in another style, a plan creating a Blue Print is essential.

Good Artist's from all over the world, Chinese, Russian,and Japanese, Artist's,  yes, everyone starts with a Blue Print (plan).



Skip this idea altogether, most do.  I hear this "well I copy other Artist's work, so I don't need one".

Would a Home Builder need a plan, you know the answer.

I know it's a pain, but you do need a plan.  Put it this way, 95% of Professional Artists make a plan,  95% of "copy" Artist's don't.  We just copy some Professionals work.

Don't get me wrong there is absolutely nothing wrong for students to copy works of the Masters when you begin to paint.  But just keep two thoughts in mind, copyright laws, and don't do it most of your painting years.

So lets start (painlessly) in organizing a plan you don't need to spend a lot of time ten to thirty minutes might work.  A small 3"x4" value sketch is a minimum.

First quickly decide, does a vertical, square or horizontal format suit the idea you might have in mind. Basic rules for a Home Builder are place kitchen close to dining area.  Similar for painting, place "impact area" (center of interest) in a STRATEGIC position on the paper.  WHERE?  THIS IS IMPORTANT.

Divide the picture into thirds, vertically and horizontally, where they cross (you have four choices), choose only one.  THAT'S THE CENTER OF INTEREST.

Center of Interest the spot that the eye (brain) goes to first when looking at a painting.  But Jim how do I show the "Center of Interest" to the best advantage.  EMPHAZIE.

This is where you need your brightest colors, the highest contrast, the sharpest edges, and the most detail.  Total area should be about 1/16th of the total area of the painting (plus or minus).


You make a thumbnail sketch, showing the shapes, where darks and lights go.  Decide where the Impact Area goes.  Decide on color scheme (more about this latter).


"Values" (lights and darks), is the foundation of a painting PERIOD!  NOT COLOR.

Like the rooms in your house the "shapes" must be linked together.  The builder creates a flow pattern, linking an area with a hallway to the next area.  YOU DO THE SAME.  Linking the light and dark areas together for rhythm, balance and movement.


Simplify your painting idea into a few major shapes that will form the overall design.  Big large joining shapes.  No little "non-joining" shapes scattered all over the painting.  Now we have the plan and foundation in place.


Once your values are "planned", you are ready to construct the frame work, the Color Plan.

Ask yourself what color or colors sets the stage for the mood of the subject.  Those should dominate the painting.

This formula works for me, (1)  mostly, (2) some and a (3) bit. Also, have seen it expressed as Papa Bear, Mama Bear and Baby Bear.

The color distribution should roughly follow these proportions.

(1) "Mostly" the colors should share the same characteristics.

(2) "Some" should differ from the "Mostly" main color.

(3) The "Bit" should be completely different from "Mostly" and "Some".

Perhaps the Mostly, Some and Bits, is most obvious in color; But remember there is M,S & B in values, temperature, and intensity.


(1)  Mostly- Dark Colors.  (2)  Some- Middle Tones.  (3)  Bit- Light.

(1)  Mostly- Blue        (2)  Some- Yellow       (3)  Red.

(1)  Mostly- Warm Colors  (2)  Some- Cool     (3)  Neutral.

Please note you can inter-change the order or arrangement of the examples above i.e."Mostly" - middle tones, "Some" dark and "Bit" light.


There are two ideas at the heart of this strategy.

FIRSTLY    It makes sure that all color properties in your painting are not all the same.  All greens every where (I know you have seen this) will be boring.

Painting with all similar values will look bad, try it.  Paint a landscape some green in the trees same green in background and foreground.  WHAT A MESS.  Also full intensity colors would be overwhelming (bet you have seen those).

SECONDLY  Contrast which when carefully applied can be the key to a compelling visual image.  The "Bit" is especially important.  Bit is a perfect choice of the Impact Area (C of I).


Use a large brush to keep it simple.  Start with a "Broom" and finish with a "Needle"

Don't get hung up in the details yet.  In other words don't put the wall paper on a half built wall.  Paint large shapes first, then and only then, paint the details.


Only now can you decorate your structurally sound painting to your hearts content, even with a small brush.  Can be left impressionistic or developed to photo realism. You will find that a good painting does not require a genius. ALL IT TAKES IS A GOOD BLUE PRINT.



Back to Back Issues Page